Four years later, Reagan captured 44 states in the primary (the other six going to party insider and eventual VP candidate, George Bush), matching his eventual win in the general election. When his formerly moderate VP took the throne at the end of Reagan's two terms, it was with a conversion to conservative positions. Since then, the story of the Republican Party has been not just a steady drift to the right, but an increasing demand for purity.
Republicans, in spite of defeat of conservative candidates previous to 1980, and despite seeing success with candidates that held more moderate positions, continually pulled in the drawstrings on their tent, insisting on an every narrower range of ideological positions from their candidates. This was even more true after defeats in the last two decades. Republicans have not assumed that their candidates failed to win election because they were too conservative; they've constantly assumed that any failures come from not being conservative enough. The result has been that moderate and liberal Republicans (yes, that species did once exist) are all but extinct.
Meanwhile, Democrats suffered their own defeats, in 1972 when Sen. George McGovern lost to the incumbent Nixon, and in 1984 when Walter Mondale challenged Reagan at the height of his popularity and lost. Both were tough defeats. Solid ass whoopins within a point or two of Goldwater's shellacking.
Since then, the pattern of Democratic and Republican presidencies has nearly mirrored the results following the Goldwater, but it's not possible to look inside the Democratic Party and chart a similar rise of progressive values. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Rather than seeking political purity, Democrats instead have sought the magic value of "electability," which was often read as leaning toward many of the same pro-corporation positions as Republicans. Whether it was "tough on crime" or "business friendly," there were few Republican policies where Democrats didn't say "me too!"
Democrats have rushed to join Republicans on issues ranging from market deregulation to welfare reform. The result is that whether we'd talking about Pentagon funding or health care, the entire argument happens within an idea space that used to be completely held by Republicans. Progressives don't want to believe that the nation has become more conservative, but it has. Democrats made it that way.
Year by year, as the Republican Party has occupied fewer and fewer moderate positions, compromise with the Republican Party has mean incorporating into the Democratic Party positions that are right of center. Sometimes far to the right. In a sort of Zeno's Paradox of Politics, halfway to the Republicans is a point that's constantly shifting away, and reaching it requires ever more compromise of the original Democratic position.
Democrats have made that compromise. Rather than reading the defeats of McGovern, Carter, or Mondale as a call to solidify their core strategy, they took them as a sign that you should never be too forthright, too detailed, too liberal in your positions. They took it as a sign that only by watering down your support for labor, could you avoid the stigma of being anti-business. Only by accepting that money is inseparable from speech, could you gain the funds you needed to be competitive. Only by shying from specific solutions and hiding behind vague platitudes could you avoid either boring or offending the public. Only by denying the positions that had lifted the country out of Depression and brought it success in war war and prosperity in peace, could you avoid the dreaded label of liberal.
This approach is not necessarily bad politics, at least in the short term. A good case can be made that Democratic officeholders were able to sustain themselves in several areas by adopting many Republican positions, when several of them might have been ousted if they had held stubbornly to progressive New Deal / Great Society positions. There were waves on the horizon, and most Democratic politicians decided it was easier to surf than hold firm.
However, by many measures Democrats have been much less successful over the last thirty years than they were in the thirty that came before. Much less dominant. That's true both at the federal level and at the state level. Portions of the electorate once solidly in the 'D' column now have a hard time finding advantage in selecting a party other than the one their boss tells them to pick, because the middle class policies that the Democrats once evinced have mutated into "business-friendly" variations on GOP positions. In chasing compromise with a Republican Party that considers compromise a sign of weakness, Democrats have handed away something far more valuable than seats in Congress or even terms in the White House. They've lost meaning.
Chasing the Republicans may not be bad politics, but it is certainly bad policy.
Democrats should not hold progressive positions because they are fashionable, we should be progressives because progressive policy works. The've been proven to work time and time again. Furthermore, conservative policy has been a failure. It failed this time, last time, and every time.
Democrats should not be detailed and honest in their policies because its what the public wants, we hiding actions behind slogans and failing to tell people what they are actually voting for and against is not democracy at all. It's just lying writ large.
The truth is that higher taxes on the wealthy and increased regulation of banks and corporations is necessary not to please a polity, but to save the country. We had better do it, and we had better do it fast, if we want to avoid being drawn over a fiscal cliff far more real than the one currently being talked up on Sunday Mornings.
The Democratic Party can not afford to be moderate, not in a time when moderation means accepting policies that have proven to be disastrous. The Republicans have shown that a small engine of puritans can easily drag a whole train load of poltroons. It's way past time to apply the brakes. Whether it's the economic calamity or the wars overseas, the answer is not a more moderate form of conservative positions.